Since 2014, Amazon has touted the efficiency and safety benefits of its new automated fulfillment centers where robots assist human workers in processing packages. But it turns out automation may be doing far more harm to the company's employees than Amazon has led the public and lawmakers to believe. In a new report, the Center for Investigative Reporting's Reveal publication found that between 2016 and 2019, the rate at which Amazon employees sustained serious injuries was 50 percent higher at warehouses where the company has robots than at ones where it does not.
Those facilities have among the highest rates of employee injuries of any of Amazon's warehouses. Last year, for instance, a fulfillment center south of Amazon's Seattle headquarters called BFI3 had a rate of 22 serious injuries for every 100 workers. As Reveal points out, that's a clip that's five times higher than the current industry standard and more than even Amazon's average.
What makes injuries more likely to occur at Amazon's automated warehouses is that the company has unrealistic expectations of the human employees that work there. Where workers called pickers previously had to scan about 100 items every hour, Amazon now expects them to scan up to 400 products in the same amount of time. Those employees can't keep with the robots without hurting themselves.
What's more, Reveal found Amazon has either been slow or shown no interest in listening to federal regulators when it comes to the issue. In 2015, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) outlined policies Amazon could implement to keep employees safe at a robotic warehouse in New Jersey. For example, one suggestion was that the company rotates employees between different jobs throughout their shifts to avoid repetitive stress injuries. Reveal found that Amazon has yet to implement those measures across its warehouses.
When asked about its automated warehouses, a spokesperson for Amazon told Reveal, "the use of robotics, automation and technology in our fulfillment centers is enhancing our workplace, making jobs safer and more efficient." We've reached out to Amazon for additional comment. We'll update this article when we hear back.
The report also found that injuries are more common at the company's warehouses during the holiday shopping season and throughout its Prime Day event. In all, Reveal says in 2019 Amazon recorded 14,000 serious injuries at across 150 fulfillment centers, with injury rates increasing year-over-year.
Update 9/29/20 9:10PM ET: Amazon has told Engadget in a statement:
“We strongly refute the claims that we’ve misled anyone. At Amazon, we are known for obsessing over customers—but we also obsess about our employees and their safety. Reveal is misinformed and guided by a sense of activism rather than journalism. The reporter is misinterpreting data, and the very internal documents he claims to have obtained ultimately illustrate one thing—we have a deep focus on the safety of our teams. We look at a variety of metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of our safety programs, but Reveal is misinformed regarding an OSHA safety metric that measures days away and restricted or transferred work (known as a DART rate) as something the reporter mistakenly calls a serious incident rate. The reality is that there is no such OSHA or industry “serious incident rate,” and our DART rate is actually supportive of employees as it encourages someone with any type of injury, for example a small strain or sprain, to stay away from work until they’re better. While we often accommodate employees with restrictions so that they can continue to work with full pay and benefits, we don’t believe an employer should be penalized when it encourages an associate to remain away from work if that will better promote their healing. As a company, while we constantly learn and improve from the past, we focus on inventing programs that create a safer work environment, and we provide comprehensive health benefits starting on day one of employment. We continue to see improvements in injury prevention and reduction through programs focused on improved ergonomics, delivering guided physical and wellness exercises, providing mechanical workstation assistance equipment, improving workstation setup and design, forklift telematics, and forklift guardrails to separate equipment from pedestrians—to name a few.”